Atlantis Successfully Lifts Off, Capping the 30-Year Space Shuttle Program and Blowing My Mind

Atlantis Launch 1

Clearing the towerJohn Mahoney

Casting aside a week of ominous weather, space shuttle Atlantis successfully lifted off at 11:29 AM EST today from Kennedy Space Center. A brief pause in the countdown at :31 seconds to confirm retraction of the external fuel tank's Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm, or "Beanie Cap," was the only hiccup in what so far appears to have been a flawless launch. It was probably the most awesome thing--as in, literally full of awe--that I've seen in my life.

The sudden, sunny triumph over a 30%-favorable weather forecast added to what was already an incredibly emotional scene here by the big countdown clock at the Kennedy press site, where over 2,000 members of the media joined Kennedy Space Center employees for the shuttle program's farewell. With 45 minutes until the 10-minute launch window, weather conditions were given a thumbs up by NASA officials, which stayed up until launch at 11:29 AM, with just 58 seconds remaining in the launch window.

Atlantis Launch 3

The sound is deafeningJohn Mahoney

Lifting off in a light haze, Atlantis rocketed into the sky and was visible from the ground for approximately 40 seconds before disappearing into the canopy of clouds, its rocket booster exhaust plume billowing in the clear air below.

As I said on Twitter, I feel so incredibly lucky to have been here. It's still pretty tough to collect my thoughts from the jumble of emotion this final launch (and my first) has so gloriously dumped on me. I hope to do that later this afternoon (stay tuned Monday!) in another post. Until then, Godspeed, Atlantis.